Ask the proverbial man on the street, “What is art?” and the answer will nearly always include some permutation of the word “express.” Try it yourself. The notion that expression lies at the center of art-making is deeply ingrained in the public’s mind. In the most general sense of course, all art constitutes a form of expression. But what a large segment of the public expects is some sort of emotive gesture, or at least evidence of the artist’s hand. So how do you approach art that’s devoid of dexterous articulation, art that reflects the workings of the mind rather than the hand or “soul?” Two exhibitions currently on view at the Castellani Museum challenge viewers in ways that are both cerebrally complex and subtle with varying degrees of success.
Alexandra Spaulding makes highly conceptual works that exist somewhere between minimalist sculpture and science exhibits. They have an impassive manufactured appearance, devoid of expressive flourishes. Spaulding’s stated goal is to create an ineffable experience for viewers. This usually involves some sort of illumination or aural effect. Of course, if the experiences were truly ineffable, writing about them would be pointless. They might more accurately be described as subtle, so subtle that viewers who only give the works a cursory once-over will miss out. But patience and an open mind is rewarded with intellectual and sensory gratification.
The exhibition, enigmatically titled The One That I’ve Kept Closest, consists of three stand-alone works, some ancillary wall material, and twin restroom light installations. Spaulding adheres pretty tightly to a less-is-more aesthetic. The three stand-alone pieces echo work in the collection of the Albright-Knox, either by design, or via their influence on the artist. There are no individual titles to hint at Spaulding’s intent; she plays it close to the chest, leaving viewers to suss out her meaning on their own.
The most accessible piece consists of a four-foot-square box constructed of what looks like smoky glass sitting atop a nearly identically sized white pedestal.
Suspended inside is a rotating disco ball lit from below. What viewers are actually peering through are one-way mirrors with the reflective surfaces inward. Though the effect is somewhat muted by ambient light, reflections in the mirrored interior create an infinite visual echo of the ball, much like the inside of Lucas Samaras’ popular Mirrored Room at the Albright-Knox. Spaulding’s version keeps viewers on the outside looking in, a mildly vexing situation that jibes with the artist’s stated intent to create “unease” within participants. The tacky mirror ball vibe is the closest Spaulding gets to humor. She has said the work is a tribute to her father, who was involved with the design of the disco floor featured in the movie Saturday Night Fever.
More subtle is an identically sized cube covered with black, pyramidal-patterned anechoic foam material, and mounted on a black pedestal. Anechoic material is used commercially to deaden sound inside rooms by eliminating echo. Spaulding inverts this configuration, putting the material on the outside of the box enclosure. The result is a compelling form, especially when lit dramatically from behind as it is here. To get the full experience, viewers should take note of the way sound alters in close proximity to the cube. Try, for instance, speaking in its direction; whereas the disco cube generates a visual echo, the anechoic cube stifles auditory echoes, endowing the two works with yin-yang harmony.
Perhaps the most compelling work is also the hardest to describe. It comprises two white boxlike segments, one against the wall, and the other positioned below it on the floor, forming an L when viewed from the side. The square wall component has a smaller square opening cut into its center that glows yellow from recessed lights. The effect is faintly reminiscent of a Joseph Albers painting. Take a few minutes and stare at the glowing opening. Before long the yellow square begins to float forward, negative space seemingly growing tangible. This is similar to the James Turrell installation owned by the Albright-Knox, but here the effect breaks down as you move closer and the recessed lights come into view. Spaulding has described her work as “magic,” and this piece comes closest to pure illusion, but with the magician’s secret laid bare. However, that’s only half the effect. The bottom component is a box within a box. The interior box has a cover with a handle, tempting viewers to open it. I’ll let gallery visitors experience this without a spoiler, but let’s just say that Spaulding has again put anechoic material to clever use.
There are some childlike paintings on the gallery wall. At the opening reception, Spaulding explained that these were done in collaboration with a young girl named Olive Steiner as a diversion from the emotionally detached rigors of her conceptual work. Not surprisingly, these are all about expression.
With a title like Protista Imperialis v2. 1 you just know Byron Rich’s installation a couple rooms over is going to challenge the intellect. Like Spaulding, Rich leans on science for subject matter, with no hint of traditional artistic expression. But unlike Spaulding, whose sculptural works are visually engaging, Rich’s aesthetics are strictly cerebral. In the center of the room, there is a computer on a cart alongside what is essentially an enclosed Petri dish called a bioreactor. This is filled with algae-laden water (drawn from Hoyt Lake in Delaware Park). A lamp is perched above the bioreactor, and sundry wires and technical apparatus complete the wonky ambience. Projected onto the wall is a circular digital map of the earth alongside some printed information on climate change.
The gallery is wired to detect the sound of visitors, even just footsteps, which powers the lamp, causing the algae to grow. Of course, the more people that visit, the faster the algae grows. The superimposed green hue on the projected digitized earth derives its color from a live webcam of the algal bloom. Rich intends this as a metaphor for the impact of humans on the environment. Metaphor, being the domain of artists, is what elevates Protista Imperialis v2.1 from science fair project to art.
Rich extends the central metaphor via another program that hacks into the global online Instagram website, detecting anyone using the hashtag #climate change. Visitors are encouraged to participate by posting Instagram images with the hashtag. As the hashtags accumulate, the continents of the projected digital earth slowly become submerged as if the oceans were rising. It’s a strained metaphor, as the environmentally sympathetic hashtag sows ecological havoc. Perhaps Rich is trying to say that all this talk is getting us nowhere, but having earth friendly postings act as the catalyst for environmental destruction feels backward. Rich cites the carbon dioxide exhaled by visitors, which interacts with the algae, as one more layer of complexity in the work. The adage here seems to be more is more.
Protista Imperialis v2.1 is an earnest effort to engage the public through science and technology, but it sags under the weight of its own density. The situation might have been improved with a clear didactic explanation. Unfortunately, the only written material available is Rich’s catalog essay, an egregious example of artspeak infused with technobabble making for a riotously wordy and impenetrable account that does little to help viewers understand what they’re seeing.
Rich states, “Ultimately this work has been designed to encourage dialogue surrounding the implications of increasingly digitized interpersonal interactions, and whether further digitization of experience is, or can be, an agent of positive environmental awareness.” Regretfully, this is not achieved in any practical sense. You could make the argument that Protista Imperialis v2.1 is no less comprehensible than abstract expressionism was to the general public when it was first introduced (or even still). But at least there, viewers had good old artistic expression to fall back on.
The One That I’ve Kept Closest is on view through January 11; ProtistaImperialis v2.1 is on view through February 8.
Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, arts activist, and Spree’s art critic